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Alaska villages weigh coronavirus concerns as the Iditarod heads for the Bering Sea coast

Randy Toshavik waves to a passerby in Unalakleet. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

UNALAKLEET — On Saturday afternoon here, excitement about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was picking up as mushers came into Kaltag, the checkpoint before the race reaches this village and the Bering Sea coast.

Randy Toshavik, 63, walked down the street in his “summer clothes” — jeans and a flannel shirt. He asked where Lance Mackey was in the race standings. He said he wasn’t too worried about the novel coronavirus pandemic because of how rural the village is.

However, his level of concern raised when he was asked about the impacts of the race moving through.

“Oh Lord, now you got me there,” he said. “I’ve been slapped in the face.”

Despite growing concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19, teams are racing to Nome while race officials and villages along the race route take measures to limit exposure to rural Alaska.

Race marshal Mark Nordman said racing continues under the guidance of state officials.

“If the state of Alaska said the race must stop, we’d stop," he said Friday. "We have not heard that.”

Race officials said in a statement late Friday night that they were streamlining staff to include only essential personnel, including “veterinarians, logistics, communications and necessary dog handlers.”

From left, veterinarians Steve Shipley, Ron Hallstrom, and Terry Hardage talk on the street in Unalakleet on Saturday during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Shipley is from North Carolina, Hallstrom from Virginia, and Hardage from Oklahoma. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The Iditarod also asked the public — particularly anyone traveling from outside the state — “to not make any nonessential travel to the Nome finish.”

City officials in Nome and Unalakleet have canceled events associated with the race, and the Bering Strait School District — which includes schools in Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin and White Mountain, all on the Iditarod Trail — announced that it canceled the “hosting of Iditarod events” and visitors in schools.

The Iditarod brings excitement, tradition and tourists to the villages, but it could also bring the coronavirus to places where health care is limited.

On Friday, the checkpoint at Shaktoolik — 40 miles up the coast from Unalakleet — was moved outside the village, according to a statement from the Iditarod. Mushers “will be provided with their food drop bags, straw for bedding and HEET,” the statement said. But there will be no place for them to seek shelter inside.

“Out in the more remote villages ... you don’t have a robust infrastructure for health care, and if you needed more in-depth health care beyond really minimal support, you have to be able to fly somewhere to get it,” said epidemiologist Jodie Guest.

Guest was at the Unalakleet Airport volunteering with the logistics team for the Iditarod Air Force. She has been a professor of epidemiology for Emory University in Atlanta for the past 19 years.

Dr. Jodie Guest, professor of epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, speaks to a reporter in Unalakleet. Dr. Guest is a volunteer with the Iditarod Trail Committee working on logistics for the race. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Given her background and the spread of the coronavirus, she has expanded her role with the Iditarod this year by giving some advice on how the race should deal with the global health pandemic.

Guest said given the virus’s infection rate, there is no way to stop it. The best thing to do is to slow its spread to limit the overburdening of health care systems. But out in rural Alaska, it’s a little different.

“I think villages, if they get the virus inside of it, are going to be a little bit of a scarier predicament than you might be in a city that has a ton of hospitals available, but at the same time you’re slightly more protected out here,” she said. “Unless you have a bunch of visitors, the virus might not make it to you."

Guest said Iditarod officials have been cognizant of that danger, and will move checkpoints from villages if the villages ask.

“Sporting events are optional,” she said. “There’s no reason why we have to be in a village if they feel it’s best for them to not be there.”

In Unalakleet, only essential personnel will be allowed inside the checkpoint.

“I know the city is putting up barricades along the slough to keep the public away from mushers coming through and away from that checkpoint so mushers can do what they need to do and get back out,” said Bobby Bolen, superintendent of the Bering Strait School District.

Rhylee Ivanoff, 9, throws a snowball at a friend in Unalakleet on Saturday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

On Saturday afternoon, 11-year-old Ourea Busk played out in the snow with her siblings. In front of a large sign welcoming visitors to Unalakleet, she had molded a little Alaskan husky.

On the other side of town, Brenden Sallison, 8, Rhylee Ivanoff, 9, and Burton Ivanoff, 8, stopped their snowball fight long enough to speculate on who was leading the race. Jessie Royer, Burton insisted. Rhylee thought it might be last year’s champion, Bethel’s Pete Kaiser.

The Iditarod is one of the only high-profile sporting events happening anywhere in the United States. Professional sports leagues have suspended their seasons, and in Alaska the state high school basketball tournaments were canceled Saturday. State officials implemented extended school closures through March 30 to keep children from being in close proximity to one another.

“I do not think it is (overreacting),” Guest said. It “flattens the curve,” she said, slowing the spread of the virus to make it more manageable.

A bowl of bleach water sits at the entrance to the Iditarod bunkhouse on Saturday, March 14, 2020. The city of Unalakleet is experiencing a water shortage and the Iditarod is taking unusual measures to control the risk of COVID-19. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Social distancing and hand washing are key to warding off the virus, and Unalakleet is on a severe water conservation order because its water supply is low. On Friday, the water tank had 5 1/2 feet of water. At 5 feet, the city will issue a boil notice.

That means the more people wash their hands, the faster the drinkable water supply is drawn down. So, people have turned to the germ-killing power of bleach.

“Every time you walk into one of the public spaces, there’s a big, huge bucket of bleach water,” Guest said. “People are rinsing their hands in that first, and then there’s hand sanitizer next to it.”